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Arguing Well

Luke 12: 49 - 56

This is one of those readings where you wonder what a person new to church would be thinking. Indeed it may well be leaving us regulars thinking …what on earth is this all about?

This is not the Jesus we are used to and probably not the Jesus we want to hear from. Where is the water-walking, miracle-working, loving Jesus? What happened to sweet baby Jesus asleep on the hay - the good and kind Shepherd…the Prince of Peace?

I think it's important to remember Jesus’ context and that he would have been speaking into the knowledge of all that is to come - his baptism which is his death and ultimate victory of the cross….the decisions that will come as some people accept Jesus and others don't (the persecutions to follow) and of course Jesus is foretelling here of the fall of Israel and the destruction of the temple by Rome.

The crisis is coming and is already here in so many ways - the oppression of Rome, the subjugation of the poor, the distortion of spiritual teaching by those in religious power …and amongst this all is the gentle miracle worker Jesus - showing a very different way of being, of becoming and living. Of loving all - including our enemies.

In this context Jesus asks…why can't you put this all together…read the writing on the wall - why can't you see that the time has come - the time that many have been waiting for is finally here - but so few people hear and listen.

Jesus is asking - what are they waiting for, what don't they listen, change course and act differently?

They can see what kind of weather is coming by studying the sky ….but they can't discern the obvious and inevitable consequences of their actions.

Looking at the loss of faith in society, the obsession with consumption, the situation in the Ukraine and Taiwan, inflation and the cost of living crisis, climate change and the destruction of the earth - this challenge and these questions from Jesus remain very pertinent to us today as don't they?

Why can't we discern the obvious and inevitable consequences of our actions?

Tom Wright, reflecting on this challenging and difficult passage, says that this text speaks directly to the church and Christians today.

If the kingdom of God is to come on earth as it is in heaven - part of the role of the church and of Christians is to understand the events of the Earth and to address them with the message of love and challenge of Heaven.

When we stand with Jesus and we choose another way - through the change in ourselves and in our lives that comes with this faith - we come into conflict with the world and those around us. Even those we love. This is the kind of conflict Jesus is speaking of.

All of this, along with current affairs and of course the bitter disputes around the Lambeth Conference has made me think about conflict and arguing….and my question is - if argument and conflict are so prevalent, even expected - how can we argue well - so that we can hear each other properly and find a better way forward.

Conflict is all around us and yet we are never really taught how to argue well are we? How to have a serious respectful disagreement that leads to hopefully a better place of understanding. It's a real skill set that needs to be encouraged and developed.

Bishop Robert Barron has shared some teaching on some of this and starts with the key question:

Am I pursuing the truth here or am I trying to win the argument?

All too often arguments turn into some kind of moral or intellectual prize - fight…where we find a low punch to get advantage, to ultimately win - but this involves all too often a mis-representation of the other person's view.

Tim Keller, the American pastor and theologian says we should not be afraid to argue when we disagree - but we must do it well - with love and compassion - and not just to win.

He then sets out 6 approaches to arguing well - especially when discussing faith - but the principles I think stand in most other settings.

  1. Take full responsibility for even unwitting misrepresentation of others’ views.

Here Tim Keller argues that we shouldn’t seek to misrepresent something someone has said - or to construe or extrapolate something when this isn't necessarily this case. You said this - so it must mean you think this / you do this / don't do that.

This involves apologizing for knowingly or accidently misunderstanding what someone says. The focus has to stay on finding the truth - not winning the argument. It's not that you can't be forthright or even edgy.

Socrates, the master of the western intellectual tradition showed how to do this in many ways (though his ultimately nihilistic approach is not recommended here!). Socrates showed the power of simply ask questions, seeking to genuinely understand the other person - Do you mean this? - Do you mean that? …..In doing this we are able to show intellectual and moral humility in understanding the other person's point of view.

If we forget our ethics in pursuing the truth - what's the point? If you win the argument - so what if you have lost the person and you have also lost the truth.

Bishop Barron talks of avoiding the boxing match approach (pugilism) and instead focusing on a conversion based on the approach where 'we are both in love with a transcendent third - the truth - and we are trying to find it together'.

All too often we mix up conflict between people and ideas - we need to be able to disagree with ideas and still love and respect the other. To do this we need to disagree in a loving way - we signal our interest and respect for the truth and in that person. Humor can help us in this balance.

2. Never attribute an opinion to your opponents that they themselves do not own.

Ok so this is about lots of things, one example that I see online a lot is when you quote a person and suddenly you are accused of supporting everything that person has ever said or done. Quoting Aristotle for example - then I must automatically agree with everything that person has said about women, slavery etc etc….

If this is the principle of debate, and as we are all sinners morally and intellectually - who could we ever quote or make reference to - I could only therefore refer to Jesus. This approach gets us nowhere.

3. Take your opponents’ views in their entirety, not selectively.

This is something that happens all the time, again especially online - but also after services…less so here but in other parishes folk would come up and say ‘what you didn't say Fr Richard was….’ and I’m often left thinking I know but I only have 10 minutes - I can't include everything in Christian scripture, doctrine and theology in that time!

Scripture and Christian doctrine is complex and full of paradox’s - God is distant, God is close, God is loving and God allows suffering, God speaks loudly and God whispers quietly. I simply can’t communicate everything I believe or the church teaches about a subject every time I speak or write. You are the same - we are all the same on this and we need to keep it in mind when we are listening to or reading something.

We need to give others the benefit of the doubt - we can't say everything necessary in one go or time - we need to look and think about that person in the round.

4. Represent and engage your opponents’ position in its very strongest form, not in a weak “straw man” form.

In a way we are going back to the good bits of Socrates here. This is about doing all the work necessary until you can articulate the views of your opponent with such strength and clarity that he or she could say, “I couldn’t have said it better myself.” Instead of creating a weak straw man to play with, knock down and humiliate your opponent with - you build a steel man - you ‘steel man the other argument’ - make it as strong as you can. In doing this you show your opponent you are listening, you respect them and from this you have the way forward to find the truth together.

You never know you might change your mind in the process.

5. Seek to persuade, not antagonize—but watch your motives!

The purpose is not just to win the argument - if we humiliate and alienate the other - what's the point? This doesn't mean we can’t be strong, clear or even corrective - what it does mean is that we must not forget the person, with feelings, struggles, fears and background.

Tim Keller points out that it is possible to seek to be persuasive out of self-centeredness rather than God-centeredness. We may be persuasive or take up arguments in an attempt to be popular.

And therefore, looking very closely at our motives, we must take care that our argument does not unnecessarily harden and antagonize our opponents. We should seek to win them, as Paul did Peter, not to be rid of them. Again, if we win the argument but lose the person …in the end we have to ask is this the point?

6. Remember the gospel and stick to criticizing the theology—because only God sees the heart.

This is about not attacking the person but not the ideas. ‘Let me talk to you about your idea and why I have a different view’ is ok and very different to saying ‘let me tell you about why you are not alright’. This approach applies to arguing about theology as much as it's about disagreeing about who should be the next Conservativ Prime Minister or where we want to go on holiday. We need to hold our compassion and empathy.

Tim Keller reflects that `In the end, we love people into belief. We do not argue them into belief’ and I think he is right.

In the end Love is always the most compelling argument.


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